Thousands of birds, including white pelicans, migrate to New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge each fall and winter.
Thousands of birds, including white pelicans, migrate to New Mexico's Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge each fall and winter.
Wally Newman

Crane Spotters

A visitor greets a rehabilitated bald eagle, left, at the refuge as a handler looks on. The refuge's wetlands, right, are the result of careful management of Rio Grande floodwaters and reintroduction of native plants.
A visitor greets a rehabilitated bald eagle, left, at the refuge as a handler looks on. The refuge's wetlands, right, are the result of careful management of Rio Grande floodwaters and reintroduction of native plants. (By Bob Jones)

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By Grace Lichtenstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 12, 2006

As the last rays of sun bathed the willow trees of New Mexico's Bosque del Apache, a cacophony echoed across the countryside south of the tiny village of San Antonio. Thousands of geese and cranes soared above this wildlife refuge astride the Rio Grande, then settled in ponds that spill across its 57,000 acres. A half-minute of silence disturbed only by the rush of a light wind was soon broken as the birds, responding to some unknown signal, suddenly erupted, cackling, from the vast refuge and flapped across the landscape.

I drove to one of the wooden boardwalk lookouts while the sun painted the cliffs to the west in shades of mauve and lavender. A regiment of ducks, as military as web-footed soldiers, paraded across the water two by two. Above, cranes were putting on their aerial performance, forming a V-shaped phalanx with impressive precision. Two stragglers, apparently trying to catch up with their group, accelerated in flight, their necks stretching out, their beaks aiming toward the forward pack.

Were the laggard cranes afraid they would lose sight of their buddies? Would there be a reward for those that landed at their destination first? Was I interpreting what I saw in misguided anthropomorphic terms? I wasn't sure. Nor was I sure that it mattered. Binoculars pressed against my eyes, I just watched, transfixed.

In the heart of the forbidding desert of central New Mexico, just about the last thing you would expect to find is a convivial marina for migrating birds. Yet 10 miles south of Socorro, whose 8,500 residents make it one of the larger population centers in the region, sits one of the most dynamic national wildlife refuges in the American West. Each fall and winter, this marshy woodland area attracts an astonishing number of birds and flocks of bird-watchers who love them. November through March is high season, when the sanctuary hosts tens of thousands of ducks, snow geese, sandhill cranes and other birds that have fled winter in their northern homes.

At dawn and dusk, these temporary inhabitants take off and land en masse. It's a spectacular scene; the skies are suddenly filled with squawking winged creatures in different configurations, as if choreographed by a hidden ornithological ballet master.

The equivalent of homecoming weekend is the Festival of the Cranes, which takes place this year from Tuesday through Nov. 19. Federal wildlife rangers and volunteer birding experts offer special tours, exhibits and lectures in and around the Bosque headquarters, about a 90-minute drive from Albuquerque.

However, the birds themselves don't limit themselves to a single weekend, nor do they put the festival in their PDAs. They are as much fun to visit anytime during the fall and winter. Indeed, on a late afternoon in November when I last visited, the refuge was as bustling as the streets of Mumbai.

Some 64,000 ducks, 21,000 geese, 10,000 sandhill cranes, six eagles and two rare tundra swans -- among other inhabitants -- chirped, squealed, sang, warbled, trilled, tweeted, quacked, honked, hooted, cooed and serenaded each other, delighting a small contingent of binocular- and camera-toting humans who climbed out of their cars along the Bosque's 15-mile loop road to gaze, stupefied, at the marshes and ponds swirling with life. (The bird count is posted daily at the visitors center and on the Friends of the Bosque Web site -- see Details, below.)

I don't know the difference between a Ross goose and a snow goose. Nor did I ever expect to visit this place more than once. But it captivated me the very first time, some years ago, and now I make regular pilgrimages.

Not the least of the Bosque's attractions is its unexpectedness. The name (Spanish for "woods of the Apaches") is somewhat of a misnomer. There aren't serious forests here, and the nearest Apache land is 100 miles east. As you drive along the interstate south from Albuquerque, the landscape does not inspire visions of an Audubon-esque haven. In winter, the region is, to borrow Wallace Stegner's phrase, "a great dry and wrinkled land," the color of dun. Only when you turn south at San Antonio and head toward the Bosque does the gentle riparian locale of small trees, scrub brush and marshland begin to appear.

I try to time my arrival for just before 4 p.m., since the greatest activity takes place at sundown and sunrise. Even before I reached the visitors center, I saw the first V-formation of cranes swooping overhead. By the time I parked at the wooden "flight deck" nearest the fee station, the fly-ins had begun in earnest. The birds fly out at dawn to feast in the nearby fields; then at dusk they fly back to the ponds to visit with their friends and to seek protection from predators.

The sun began to sink behind the low-lying Chupadera Mountains while I watched hordes of red-winged blackbirds settle into the wetlands. Nearby were numerous coots; dozens of pairs of gray sandhill cranes in their awkward yet familiar pose, each balancing on one long, skinny leg; and such a profusion of white snow geese that it looked as if someone had shaken out a huge featherbed.

The refuge is not purely natural. Rather, it is a manufactured environment that is also an ecological success story. According to its literature, 200 years ago the seasonal flooding of the Rio Grande produced a "mosaic of rich habitat" in the region, which provided plenty of food and shelter for migrating birds. But when the Rio Grande was dammed and diverted years ago, the wetlands were so disturbed that not many birds found it appealing. Then, in 1939, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intervened to re-create and imitate the original flooding cycle, in part by engineering waterways and manipulating water levels.

The results were remarkable. Today, the Bosque is crisscrossed with man-made canals and ditches regulated by head gates installed to form marshes. Refuge workers are removing invasive bushy tamarisk shrubs and reintroducing native plants such as screwbean mesquite, New Mexico olive and wolfberry. Nearby farmers and refuge staffers grow such crops as winter wheat and corn that are known to be favorites of the birds. The government has actually transformed the place into a five-star feathered resort.

The many species attracted to the Bosque seem to have established a peaceful coexistence. From a different lookout platform on the loop road, with the Chupaderas now silhouetted in the last orange light of dusk, I noticed a blackbird perched on top of a dead tree trunk standing in the shallow water. The silence returned for a moment, but soon the raucous chatter began again, even more loudly than before. Thousands more ducks and geese descended, calling to one another in the darkening sky, their feet splashing the surface of the water.

Dusk melted into evening. The numbers grew and grew, until the sky was swarming with flocks of geese and cranes. The ponds filled with enormous clusters of ducks. The air reverberated with birdcalls. What a show! A 10-year-old girl standing on the deck with her parents began jumping up and down, exclaiming, "This is so cool!" over and over, as if she were at a Justin Timberlake concert.

I thought to myself that this must be what rush hour looks like to air traffic controllers. But watching airplanes never held me spellbound. Unable to leave, I remained until it was completely dark. I kept my tape recorder on, so that when I returned to the workaday world, I could listen to my bootleg "Bosque Oratorio" and be transported once again to New Mexico's most enchanting aviary.

Grace Lichtenstein is a part-time Santa Fean who last wrote for Travel about New York City bicycle touring.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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